Saturday, February 27, 2010

When a Magnitude 6.9 Earthquake is an Aftershock....

There wasn't a whole lot of information when I wrote about the 8.8 earthquake in Chile in the earliest hours of the morning. Information is starting to flood in now from many sources, and my first impression is media coverage is a bit better than it was for the Haiti quake and other earlier events. When I say "better", I don't mean more cameras, I mean evidence of an effort by the reporters to educate themselves about the basic science of earthquakes.

My first thought is for the people who have been affected, both in Chile and across the Pacific basin. A quake this big is going to have huge impacts. The aftershocks are going to be an issue: my USGS notifications are set for any quakes bigger than 5.5 and there have been 11 of them so far, with the largest at 6.9. For perspective, 6.9 is the size of the Loma Prieta earthquake here in California from 1989. It killed 4 dozen people and did around $10 billion in damage. The quake in Haiti was a somewhat larger 7.0. Aftershocks are going to continue for a long time, over a region about 600 miles long (the size of the fault zone that shifted in this quake).

The tsunami is a huge threat. The size of a tsunami in any particular place is dependent on many factors, including the size of the earthquake (which was colossal), how the quake transferred energy to the ocean water (unknown to me at this point), and the shape and depth of the coastline where the tsunami strikes. All I can say to my Pacific Basin friends is that when the Civil Defense folks set off the sirens, take it seriously! Hawaii in particular has a tragic history with tsunamis, and there has been a vast amount of coastal development since the last major tsunami (in 1960, also caused by an earthquake in Chile). There will be a big problem of people wandering down to the beach to watch the tsunami, which can only be described as an act of idiocy. Get to higher ground or higher floors. If the warnings are inaccurate, you've only lost a bit of time, but if they are accurate, your life will be saved. Don't go to the coast until the "all clear" is given, because there will be more than one surge of water. You can't swim your way out of a tsunami; they are one of the most dangerous of geologic events, as the Indonesian tsunami of 2004 demonstrated.
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